Disney’s last few animated outings have, well, not that great. With the recent releases of Frozen II, Raya and the Last Dragon, and now Encanto, the studio that has set and reset the standard for feature-length animation over the past 80+ years is at somewhat of an impasse. Although, this isn’t the first time Disney has had a losing streak. In the ‘00s, following their glorious early 90s Renaissance Era a decade earlier, the studio struggled with where to go next, vying for commercial appeal amidst the aggressive rise of their partner Pixar.
Of course, Disney would eventually purchase the company outright in 2006 and Pixar’s innovative studio head, John Lasseter, would begin doing double-duty on Disney Animation pictures as well.
However, following Lasseter’s departure from both companies, with his last project being Ralph Breaks the Internet – among the studio’s best film of the last 20 years – Disney is now struggling with creative direction and maintaining narrative quality (Pixar, for the most part, is doing quite alright with its already-established team of homegrown talents).
Encanto follows Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a 15-year-old girl living in her small Colombian village with her large extended family, each of whom has been gifted with a unique magical ability. But unlike her sisters and cousins, Mirabel has no gifts. The black sheep of her family – a sentiment perpetuated by the elderly matriarch Abuela (María Cecilia Botero) – Mirabel sets out to discover her own purpose while trying to save her family’s mystical estate and the perennially lit candle that provides them all with their powers.
As much as we like Mirabel as a character, her journey doesn’t make much sense and it’s hard to sympathize with her stakes. Nearly every one of her relatives treats her as inferior, yet we’re supposed to believe that she earnestly wants to save a gift-bearing candle that only endorses this toxic dynamic. I’m sure Mirabel has reasons why she loves her family so unconditionally, but since we never see any of these reasons prior to the events in this film, it all comes off as blind loyalty, eventually resulting in forced sentiment later on.
There’s a subplot revolving around a fortune-telling uncle, Bruno (John Leguizamo), who disappeared some time ago, but the mystique surrounding his character never fully gets capitalized on. This oversight adds to the movie’s penchant for continuously highlighting its present-day, less interesting goings-on over highly intriguing lore that gets buried underneath. Additionally, what the family did to Bruno by irrationally ostracizing him makes it even harder for us to root for Mirabel’s cause.
While Encanto is second rate, the voice cast is superb, led by Beatriz in the lead role, who brings enough emotion to Mirabel that we can almost confuse liking our protagonist for liking the film itself. Leguizamo – a proven voice actor in his own right – is excellent as Bruno, a bumbling goofball who becomes (unsurprisingly) Mirabel’s only friend at one point.
Ultimately, Encanto never really takes any chances with its story. This modern notion of “there are no villains” that’s prevalent in much of today’s animated movies has become so trite, having transposed itself from the brave writing that it once was a few years ago to somewhat of a lazy narrative crutch; one less thing the screenwriters (of which there are six here) have to worry about. And in movies like this, where the audience can point out the baddies even when our protagonist can’t (or isn’t allowed to), calling them “good guys” is insulting to our intelligence.
While Raya and Frozen II contain boilerplate stories hidden under facades promising something more unique, Encanto has oddly seemed to master, even accentuate, its stale tropes. Perfect in its inability to challenge the audience, the film is definitely for those who want something more familiar. The approach is innocuous at the very least, eye rolling at best.
The one area where Encanto does deviate, expectations-wise, from other animated movies is the music. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical numbers feature his unique brand of syncopated, recitative melodies similar to those from his own hit play Hamilton, unfortunately differing from the catchy, Alan Menken-inspired tunes found in his last Disney collaboration, Moana. Other than the (now) smash-hit single, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the songs here are largely forgettable despite having the most radio-friendly pop sensibilities since 1988’s Oliver & Company. Likewise, the musical breaks almost always disrupt the narrative flow.
It’s yet to be seen what the future will hold for Disney Animation. We might be amidst another lull for the company who waits on the next Don Hahn or Ron Clements or John Musker – or John Lasseter – to pick the studio up out of the gutter. But if Encanto is any indication of where things are headed, we can expect more safe, predictable, and inoffensive fodder in the coming years. And if those don’t work, we’ve always got Marvel and Star Wars!